Like village stories? You’re going to love this one. All these Gauls are crazy!
Artist: Albert Uderzo
Translators: Anthea Bell and Derek Hockridge
Published by: Orion (Hachette)
Number of Pages: 48
Original Publication: 1972
Original Title: “Le Devin”
I Really, Really Liked This One
As much as I enjoy the trips to other countries and the endless bounty of fresh wordplay and historical references they provide, I love the stories set in the Village. I love the cast of colorful characters with strong personalities I love to see them squabble and make up. A good all-village brawl after a fish slapped to the face is the source of endless humor.
There’s something very comforting about it.
This feels like a very “small” book. It more or less entirely takes place in the village and its immediate forested surroundings. There’s no grand adventure very far except to the island that’s a two minute row away out their back door. There’s one new major character added to the mix, plus the usual flurry of Romans.
I just like how small it all feels.
Though, even with that level and depth of humor, Rene Goscinny’s script still manages to tell a story that relies on the stupidity of the human psyche as its spark. Except, it wouldn’t have been all that stupid in 50 BC. As Goscinny sets the stage, he explains that there’s a god for everything in Gaul and we already know that the Gauls have their own superstitions.
We even learn that Toutatis is the god of the tribe, which until now I had just kind of figured out for myself. I used my rudimentary French to pull the word “tout” out of there, which mean “all,” and assumed he was the god of everyone, or the whole village, at least. (The Romans have their Jupiter.)
At the same rate, you can easily read into this book lessons on modern life, too: Stop reading horoscopes. Don’t be so gullible. Don’t believe everything someone says just because it’s wildly optimistic and plays into your biggest dreams. There’s no such things as oracles, soothsayers, psychic advisers, or Miss Cleo. Follow the money. Trust nobody.
But, mostly, it’s just a funny book about nitwit villagers falling for a scam and Asterix and Getafix finding a way to get them out of it. Sounds a little like “The Mansions of the Gods,” doesn’t it? It’s closer to the movie version of that one than the book. In the movie, they all move out of the village and into the mansions, but in the book, they stay in the village and enjoy the tourism revenue.
In this book, things get so bad with the “con” that the village moves out, leaving Asterix and Obelix to defend the empty shell of their home. It’s something of a briefly sad and dramatic moment.
Beware the Soothsayer
In this story, a Soothsayer names Prolix arrives at the village and quickly earns the attention of everyone in the village — except Asterix. The rest are easily taken in by his positive outlook for their futures, as well as his increasing demands for food, drink, and bedding.
Asterix finds himself at odds with the entire village, including Obelix. He can’t believe that they’d all fall for this most classic of scams: a wandering stranger who claims to be able to predict the future, and then tells you exactly what you want to hear in exchange for a small offering.
The Soothsayer couldn’t possible be more obvious. The villagers are so excited to hear what he has to say that they lead him directly into it. But when one or two coincidences or inevitabilities come true, the village falls more into his grasp even though the proof of his powers is the weakest.
Enter the Romans
The Romans capture the Soothsayer, and things get really crazy. Soothsayers are to be arrested on sight, per Caesar’s wishes. Why? They’re a security threat, as warned of by the Roman auguries. (Auguries predict the future by reading birds. You can see how this makes so much more sense than believing a Soothsayer.)
So Prolix recants his powers, but the leader of the Roman camp wants to believe his positive predictions of gaining Caesar status, so Prolix has to play both sides of his own act. You’d be surprised how many common phrases can be made to sound so predictive of events. Prolix falls prey to all of them.
Meanwhile, the Roman second-in-command wants to arrest Prolix immediately and looks for any bit of proof that he’s a soothsayer, so he can take him in.
Prolix is in an uncomfortable spot, and Rene Goscinny’s script turns the screws on him. Every little thing Prolix says proves one side or the other right. They fight over him constantly, and he’s just trying to stay alive, at this point. He’ll promise them or say anything, but it’s still not good enough.
No wonder why he agrees to help the Romans trick the Gauls into leaving their village….
Prolix is so obvious in his ploys that you almost want to root for him to fool more people. You want to see how far he can go and what he can get away with. He’s one of the more likable villains in the series. His mental torture at the hands of the Romans, in particular, is hilarious and squirm-worthy, all at the same time. I was almost sorry to see him go at the end of the tale, though things wound up even worse for the odious Roman leader who tried to use him.
A Quick History Lesson
After I read this book, I coincidentally heard about the true story of the Battle of Drepana (249 B.C.), in which a Roman fleet of ships went after the Carthaginians that held part of Sicily along the coastline.
They started off on a bad footing. They lost the element of surprise. Their line of ships was out of formation. It was a bit of a hot mess.
But, as per Roman custom, before starting any kind of attack, they did what any smart military organization would do: They consulted the sacred chickens.
No, you didn’t misread that. Here, I’ll go slower:
They. Consulted. The. Sacred. Chickens.
Don’t worry, they brought sacred chickens with them on the boat for just such an event. The test was to lay out some grain in front of the chickens. If they ate the grain, it was a sign that the gods approved the battle.
The chickens did not eat the grain.
In a shocking break with tradition, the military leader threw the chickens overboard with the awesome quote, “Let them drink, since they don’t wish to eat.”
Then, the Romans attacked the Carthaginians.
The Carthaginians routed the Romans, and sank almost all their ships.
Those chickens were not fooling around.
P.S. The leader in charge of the battle survived. He returned to Rome, where he was convicted and sent into exile not for losing the battle and all those ships and troops, but for the sacrilege of throwing the chicken overboard.
That’ll teach ’em!
(And don’t forget the story of Julius Caesar and his run-in with the pirates who kidnapped him and came to regret it…)
Now, back to Asterix:
A Numbers Game
When Prolix arrives at the Roman camp, they test him to see if he can truly predict the future. Voluptuous Arteriosclerosis brings out a pair of dice, with numbers in Roman numerals, of course, instead of pips.
He asks the Soothsayer to predict what he’s going to roll next. The Soothsayer, trying hard to prove he’s really a charlatan, says that the dice will roll a 7.
That’s his biggest mistake of the book. The most common roll of any pair of six-sided dice is 7. That’s the last number he should have chosen. He should have picked 2 or 12, which can only be rolled with one combination each (I and I or VI and VI).
So not only is he a charlatan and a thief, but he’s also bad at math.
He’s not the biggest dummy, though. That award goes to Arteriosclerosis’ next in command, Optione, who in a rage asks Prolix to predict another roll of the dice:
Of course, it’s impossible to roll two six-sided dice and get a 1.
These Romans are crazy!
Parenthesis: A Storytelling Technique
In the past, we’ve had format shifts in the book where a war is charted out instead of shown. We’ve seen sales brochures for The Mansions of the Gods. In this book, we get a parenthetical. I love this page, which is an explanation of the kinds of charlatans Prolix exemplifies.
Or, as the opening caption box says,
A parenthesis which is necessary for a brief explanation of soothsayers, oracles, prophets, augurs, haruspices and other interpreters of the Sibylline books….
The pirates are sunk, Caesar knows no fear from Brutus, and one oracle even predict Albert Uderzo’s cottage house. (You can see a picture of it at Getty Images.)
It does not include the story of The Battle of Drepana, sadly.
The entire page is background material, outside of the scope of the main story. It’s pure exposition. That’s what parentheses are for, but Goscinny and Uderzo make it explicit here in a literal way I’ve never seen any other creators attempt. It deserves a special mention for that.
Best Name in the Book
Bulbus Crocus makes me laugh. I picture him, just from the name alone, as being a guy with a viciously large nose, for some reason.
I’m going with Voluptuous Arteriosclerosis, though, since I love the long and unwieldy names that are a big reach. They’re the kinds of names so painful to type that I’d sooner cut and paste the first instance than ever have to type it again and fight the spellchecker every click of the keyboard.
Getafix doesn’t appear in the first two thirds of this book for the simple reason that his presence would have killed any chance of this plot happening.
The Druids in the days of the Gauls were the wise men. Getafix would know instantly what the Soothsayer was up to and would stop everything before it happened. No villager would be sneaking into the woods to feed Prolix for the good news of his predictions.
How did Goscinny ditch him? He sent Getafix away to the annual Druid’s Conference, as last seen in volume 3, “Asterix and the Goths.” Again, we shouldn’t think this hard about things. We know that can be dangerous. Just like we shouldn’t ask why Asterix and Obelix didn’t go with him for protection this time.
Once again, he’s won the big prize at the conference. He never says that it’s the second one he’s won, or that he’s won two in a row now. It’s purposefully left vague, because there would have to be more than one year between volume 3 and volume 19. Too much stuff happens, with far too much traveling.
Yes, but do try to pick up the 2010 edition of the book in this case. Every page of the 2004 edition has issues. It’s mostly in the black lines, where they disappear when they get thinner. I know I’ve said it before, but it’s still true in this case: This is the worst reprinting yet.
That said, I love this book. I love the simplicity and the smallness of the story. I love every moment of the Soothsayer caught in the Roman camp and completely unable to use logic to squirm his way out of it.
As simple as the set-up is, Goscinny and Uderzo still pack in an impressive number of allusions (Rembrandt’s “The Anatomy Lesson of Dr. Nicolas Tulp“, for example, and it’s dead-on) and plenty of wordplay along the way. I could go on listing a heap more of them, but you’re better off just reading the book with that time, instead.
— 2018.051 —
Volume 20 is next, “Asterix in Corsica.” It’s the last volume to be serialized through Pilote Magazine. It’ll be interesting to see in volume 21 if there’s any noticeable difference in storytelling styles.
Just to tease you further, my review of “Corsica” will appear in two weeks. While there won’t be an album review next week, keep an eye out for another Asterix thought piece. It fits in the same family as “The Druid Getafix: A Bus Factor of 1” — taking the series too seriously, asking unanswered questions, and supporting it with lots of examples from previous volumes.